Three days after the first standalone local elections for over a decade and while most of Scotland still does not know who is going to be running their schools and libraries, the two biggest parties in Scotland are lobbing claim and counter-claim at each other to prove who won.
Call me naïve but, unless the people themselves feel that they won, the whole exercise has been a huge waste of time and likely to push party politics ever further into posturing irrelevance. Outside of the political and media hot house, few conversations in pubs or aerobics class hinge on who runs Glasgow or council group sizes. Plenty revolve around local services from bins to buses—but if politicians get mentioned, it is likely accompanied by expletives.
Leave aside whether parties get their national policies and pitches right. Is part of the reason why the turnout for last Thursday’s election was so embarrassingly low because none of the parties in Scotland ‘gets’ council-level politics? In cahoots with all manner of media, parties all seem to make the same mistakes, finding themselves still distant at the level of politics closest to the people. This is for several reasons:
1) Inability to handle diversity Because national politics is eternally in the media’s eye, diversity is anathema to party handlers. They are convinced (with some justification) that the voters punish internal rifts which diversity resembles. So, despite huge disparities in appropriate local service priority in Stenhousemuir is locked with Stornoway and national party manifestos for local government become the song sheet from which all local candidates must sing—whether in their language or not.
2) Inflexible Internal Communication. National leaders are invariably found in parliament because that is the seat of power and vice-versa. As a result, this ‘parity of esteem’ touted over the last four years is a convenient fig-leaf concealing an inner coterie around each party leader. It is actually a one-way-street: that coterie posits, formulates and embeds policy with scant consultation of those in local government tasked with implementing such policy. It is only party discipline that keeps the illusion of co-operation functional.
3) Organisational Incompatability Whereas national campaigns, based on constituencies as units, are organised uniformly, managed centrally and look coherent to an outsider, local council campaigns can be untidy, eccentric and amateur to the point of embarrassment—even as they are effective. Often that effectiveness relies on understanding nuances of individuals, 95% of whom do not fit the neat database boxes into which national canvass would fit them. Despite parties’ best efforts to harmonise, some 400+ wards are beyond enforced uniformity: canvass is sporadic; records are parital/mislaid; analysis of or research into opposition activities is rare. A political equivalent of ill-disciplined militia to the military, local campaigns present an insoluble headache to national organisers in the on-message world of SPADs
4) Fuzziness in Election Focus Although lip service is paid to local elections and HQ staff sometimes deployed to support it, true national effort, such as happens in general elections, is rare. The ineffectiveness of party internal local government organisations stems from their being staffed by unpaid councillor volunteers too pre-occupied with their own election to provide strategy, overview or support to others. And, steered by parliament priorities, national staff provides little proper scrutiny.
5) Confusion of National Message Whereas a government minister controls the officials of the department and need only worry about the media and connecting with the Leader and Cabinet, by contrast, few council cabinet members know who their opposite numbers are, still less what their policy direction might be. Due to paranoia at the centre about policy leakage, there is seldom consultation with those tasked with implementation prior to commitment to a policy. The result is either a local policy initiative vacuum or, at best, a fragmented, contradictory set of messages—again anathema to the bright young suits at headquarters.
6) Interference by National Image The highest profile in each party is held by their leaders, upon whose public image so much political success depends. That requires constant public confidence and aura of infallibility. But to be seen either as soulless power addicts or be classed with the current damaging ‘in-it-for-themselves’ public image of politicians in general is especially damaging for councillors who depend far more on personal contact and trust. The best councillors are those who neither behave like, nor are seen as ‘politicians’ in any recognisable sense.
7) No Room for the Radical One of the reasons for the continued popularity of Independents in many parts of Scotland is their reputation of speaking their mind and damn the consequences distinguishes them in the public eye. National politics demands that parties close to power march their members in lock-step unity. ‘Awkward squad’ types like Malcolm Chisholm, Nicky Fairbairn, Tam Dalyell or Dennis Canavan are the bane of whips. Yet the best councillors are such individuals. Without them, public disillusionment with politics would be even worse than it is.
In this age of the professional, it is understandable that voters make ever more unreasonable demands of their elected representatives. The resulting inevitable falls from grace tend to be at a national level simply because that’s where the media focuses. By not allowing a much more generous latitude in both behaviour and support to their councillors and insisting on parliamentary levels of discipline and conformity, not only are parties choking off a prolific source of ideas and energy but they are constricting the fruitful source of public trust and credibility that they so desperately seek.